Haute couture? Moi?

As you know by now, we are masters at finding other things to do while we are supposed to be working on our DIY projects. So what did we come up with on a rainy Saturday when we couldn’t paint outdoors? We took advantage of our Seattle Art Museum membership to attend the members-only debut of Yves Saint Laurent: The Perfection of Style.

I expected it to be fabulous. I had no idea.

A wide, quiet hallway led into the main exhibit area. Here was displayed a collection of paper dolls that Saint Laurent created when he was a young teen. He’d put on fashion shows for his sisters, and designed clothes for them. These dolls had never been displayed before, and came from the collection of YSL’s lifetime partner, Pierre Bergé (as did nearly the entire exhibition). Lesson: If your son wants to play with paper dolls, let him.

Paper doll fashions designed by young Yves Saint Laurent

Anyone remember Betsy McCall?

I was amazed to find a paper dress that I’d owned myself. Not a real Yves Saint Laurent, of course, but a vintage-style knock-off that I’d made in the 1980s. (Something that most people don’t know about me is that from my late teens into my thirties, I made most of my own clothes—everything from jeans and t-shirts to tailored suits and coats. I wasn’t a designer, but I did customize commercial patterns.)

Flowered paper doll sundress

Hey, there’s my dress!

Then we rounded the corner into a bright room and were dazzled by what looked like a stylish party of headless or hairless models.

Several 1950s dresses by YSL

Just the beginning … 1958/59

Before he turned 20, Saint Laurent was hired by Christian Dior himself. Before long, Dior picked Yves to become his successor … and then died unexpectedly, leaving Saint Laurent as the head designer at the House of Dior at the age of 21. I don’t know what you were doing when you were 21, but I didn’t know my posterior from my elbow.

If that wasn’t enough, Saint Laurent virtually saved the business in his first season by designing the wildly successful, flared “trapeze dress,” a radical departure from the constricting styles of the 1950s. However, subsequent collections weren’t as well received and, like a football coach after two losing seasons, House of Dior fired him. Also in 1960, he was drafted into the army, which, as you’d expect, was a disastrous experience for a young, gay clothing designer. After being hospitalized for depression and leaving the army, he sued Dior and won his job back, but he soon left to open his own fashion house, Yves Saint Laurent, with his partner, Pierre Bergé.

In 1966, Saint Laurent was the first designer to produce a prêt-a-porté (ready-to-wear) line at his famous YSL Rive Gauche stores. Departing from haute couture and venturing into retail revolutionized access to designer clothing. (Haute couture means, literally, “high sewing.” Couturiers make custom, one-of-a-kind clothing for high-end clients.)

Three pencil sketches by Yves Saint Laurent

So simple

The Seattle exhibit was organized roughly in chronological order, making it easy to understand how Saint Laurent’s designs were influenced and evolved. The walls of the main room were covered with collection boards, with his sketches at the bottom of the page, fabric swatches above, and notes about models at the top. I loved his sketches. The line work is spare, fluid, and confident. The figures almost seem to move.

Click to enlarge these and appreciate the detail.

He even drew a comic strip called Schmuck and Pluck, although I don’t know the context. I wanted to stand there and painstakingly read it (having forgotten all the French I never knew), but the crowd pushed me on.

A comic strip by Yves Saint Laurent

Schmuck and Pluck

Enough of history—the stars of this party were the clothes.

1966 beaded silk

1966 beaded silk cocktail dress

This grouping took me right back to my college years in the 1970s, and my favorite military-inspired raincoat.

Three YSL coats from 1970

1970 leather coats

How about this appliqued velvet wedding dress? On the front: “Love me forever.” On the back: “Or never.”

silk velvet and satin appliqued wedding dress by YSL

1970 silk velvet and satin wedding dress

In the mid-70s, Saint Laurent found inspiration in the Opera-Ballets Russes. I’d wear this graceful dress today.

Opera Ballets-Russes inspired black dress by YSL

1976 wool daytime dress

A Romanian-styled dress featured beaded and embroidered motifs inspired by Henri Matisse, next to a gold-embroidered evening ensemble. Yves seemed to gaze up from the photo to chat with his model.

Romanian Matisse dress by YSL

1981 Matisse evening ensemble; 1980 embroidered jacket ensemble

Gold maryjane pumps

The shoes! 1977

One of my favorite designs, but admittedly hard to sit in.

Dress with large pink bow in back by YSL

1983 silk evening gown

In 1966, Saint Laurent designed the first tuxedo for women, followed by the first pantsuit in 1967, changing forever the way women dress for work (and political debates). Here, Yves and his sister Michele pose next to some of his groundbreaking pantsuits.

1968 beige Gabardine pantsuit by YSL

1968 black silk evening pant ensemble; 1976 beige gabardine pantsuit

I would have loved to wear this black silk evening gown back in my salad days … or now, if only I could fit into it. These clothes were tiny.

1965 black silk evening gown by YSL

1965 silk evening gown

A tall spray of hat forms was the centerpiece of the next large room. Along the perimeter were examples of how these garments come to life. First, they’re sewn up in toile (pronounced twahl), a lightweight twill fabric; then they’re remade in the final fabrication. I’d never have the patience to sew a garment twice. I’d dive right into the expensive silk and ruin it. (Actually, I did make a muslin model of an important dress once. I wasn’t pleased with it, and scrapped the project entirely. I’ve messed up many others.) You can see some toile examples in the far corner.

Hat forms and toile garments by YSL

Hat forms and toile garments

More of my favorites:

These wool jersey Pop Art dresses impressed me with their construction. If you’ve ever tried to sew a smooth curved seam, you know it’s not easy. These seams were nearly invisible, and flat as a flitter. It looked like the colored pattern was printed on the fabric. The sparkly gold tights were a nice touch, too.

1966 wool jersey Pop Art dresses by YSL

1966 wool jersey Pop Art dresses

I’m not a big jewelry wearer … but wow!

The final hallway, called “From darkness to an explosion of color,” was artfully designed. Angled panels covered in fabric swatches progressed in prismatic order, shielding the upcoming dresses from view. Then, passing each set of panels, we were treated to groupings of dramatically lit mannequins. Had this been a live runway show, the models would be walking past us. Instead, we were walking past them.

Panels with fabric swatches line a long hallway

The grand finale

1991 gold lame evening ensemble by YSL

1991 gold lame evening ensemble

Dresses by YSL

The first selections were dark neutrals

1981 beaded gold organza suit; 1991 gold lame sari dress by YSL

1981 beaded gold organza suit; 1991 gold lame sari dress

Again, I marveled at the exquisite workmanship. Look at this silk coat, as light as a feather. The lapel is perfectly turned and precisely shaped. If you’ve ever seen very high-end clothes (I have only once, long ago in New York City) you’ve seen that they are hand made. Of course, it wasn’t Saint Laurent himself who wielded the needle, but my hat’s off to whoever worked this magic in silk the weight of cobweb.

1985 silk evening ensemble by YSL

1985 silk evening ensemble

1985 chiffon evening gown by YSL

1985 chiffon evening gown

1986 silk crepe evening gown; 1981 silk satin evening trench coat; 1999 silk crepe gownby YSL

1986 silk crepe evening gown; 1981 silk satin evening trench coat; 1999 silk crepe gown

1977 red and gold damask Chinese evening ensemble; 1979 silk organza cape and silk velvet sheath by YSL

1977 red and gold damask Chinese evening ensemble; 1979 silk organza cape and silk velvet sheath

1997 embroidered silk bodice and red silk pleated skirt evening gown by YSL

1997 embroidered silk bodice and red silk evening gown (another favorite)

1983 faille domino with silk velvet bustier dress; 1985 red silk gown by YSL

1983 faille domino with silk velvet bustier dress; 1985 red silk gown

Every fashion show ends with a bridal gown (or at least they used to—I don’t know if that’s still true, as I’ve never been to one), and this exhibit was no exception. I’d prefer the “Love me forever” version, if I had to pick.

1995 silk damask panniered gown by YSL

1995 silk damask panniered gown. Just what I need–panniers

And then it was over. I felt giddy, like I’d spent the day hob-nobbing with people way, way out of my class while wearing clothes I bought at Costco.

We walked, bedazzled, back to our car through the Seattle rain and wind. The spell was broken.

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it



12 thoughts on “Haute couture? Moi?

  1. Jessica@CapeofDreams

    Wow. I’d wear any of those clothes now. They are stunning. I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite. I wish I could feel the clothes. That’s how I buy things. I have to touch them to know if I would wear them for real.

  2. Karen B.

    I haven’t followed fashion very much but clearly his style is timeless. i wouldn’t have been surprised one bit if you had said the exhibit featured a living designer in his twenties. Incredible. And, I’m very impressed, and not at all surprised, that you made all of your clothes when you were younger. Anyone who does the detail work on a 100 year old house, the way you and the mister do, must have a creative side and the patience of a saint.
    Enjoy the weekend and thanks for sharing such detailed information about this wonderful exhibit.

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Thanks, Karen! It was enough to make me want to sew again … but now I am too busy fixing an old house. Years ago my favorite fabric sources dried up and closed … or turned into craft outlets. That ended it for me.

  3. Jo

    YSL — back when designers knew what draping was all about. Now they just ruche fabric and call it draping. Modern draping usually looks like hearse curtains to me. (Watch out, Vanna.) That’s for the tour. Jo @ Let’s Face the Music

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      Haha–hearse curtains! Yes, this exhibit really made me think about how ordinary most clothes are. I never could have afforded anything like this, anyhow!

  4. Cathy Lee

    I really appreciate the time you took to create such a lovely visual map of this exhibit because now not only am I really excited to go, but I know exactly what I’m going to see and how to more fully appreciate it. Thank you!

  5. Africadayz

    What an absolutely fabulous post! I loved it. Thank you for taking me to an exhibition I am never likely to see in person.


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